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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Monday, March 15, 2004

The Third Party Alternative?

The incumbent government of Spain lost the general election on Sunday, setting a troubling new precedent in the war on terrorism.

The election was thrown wide open last week after a devastating bomb attack killed nearly 200 people in Madrid. Before the attack, the socialist party opposition had been an underdog with no serious prospect for victory. Thursday's bombing changed all that.

The government responded to the attack by blaming Basque separatists, a politically expedient conclusion that investigators steadfastly maintained despite numerous indicators that al Qaeda might have been involved.

After a videotape released Saturday showed an alleged al Qaeda spokesman claiming responsibility for the blast, public skepticism toward the incumbent government swelled to massive proportions, as thousands of protestors flooded the capitol to accuse the government of withholding information.

If the attack originated with Qaeda, it was perceived as being tied to Spain's support of the U.S. war on Iraq — support that the new prime minister withdrew as his first official act.

In short, regardless of who is eventually found responsible for the Madrid bombs, al Qaeda has succeeded in creating a climate in which terrorism can effect regime change in targeted countries.

This represents a radical change in al Qaeda's currency as an international power player. Indeed, if the attack proves to be an al Qaeda operation, its success dwarfs the September 11 attack for its political impact.

Even more frightening, it raises the near certain threat of an "October Surprise" in the U.S. presidential elections. While a late-breaking attack has weighed on the minds of all concerned in the 2004 presidential election, the outcome in Spain virtually assures a full-court press against the U.S. by al Qaeda in October.

Almost nothing that happens in the U.S. presidential election before October now matters (unless the campaigns now steer themselves exclusively toward how they plan to respond to an attack that month). In the space of the last week, Osama bin Laden has emeged as a shadow candidate in the U.S. political process, and his only possible role is that of the spoiler.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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